News related to the 2022 World Cup has been splashed with a fair degree of regularity as the blockade imposed on Qatar enters into its sixth month. However, there’s no overlooking that fact that the country’s premier tennis, squash and golf tournaments reached important milestones in 2017.
As if there was not enough attention on Qatar and the 2022 FIFA World Cup, the current Gulf crisis has put the focus back on the region’s sporting hub, albeit for all the wrong reasons. Enough has been said in the past about the country’s sporting tradition, however what’s easy to undermine is the fact that things go back as early as the early 90s.
The Qatar ExxonMobil Open (tennis), the Commercial Bank Qatar Masters (golf), and the Qatar Classic (squash) reached landmark moments in 2017. While the tennis and squash tourneys celebrated 25 years, the inaugural edition of both tournaments having being held way back in 1992, the golf extravaganza was conducted for the 20th time this year. Here’s a brief on the above-mentioned events, their history well engrained in the country’s sporting legacy.
We start with the Qatar Classic squash tournament, the latest edition of which was won by Mohamed El Shorbagy in November this year. Formerly known as the Qatar International, the annual fixture has attracted the world’s top men and women players year after year. With the Egyptians dominating the scene on the men’s circuit over the last decade, it came as no surprise that El Shorbagy became the first player in the history of the tournament to win the title three times, taking advantage of defending champion and compatriot Karim Abdel Gawad’s early exit.
Since being renamed the Qatar Classic in 2001, there has been an Egyptian winner on seven out of nine occasions, with the tournament not held in ’12 and ’14 because of the World Championships. Interestingly, there were two editions of the event in ’07 as there was no tournament in ’06 because Doha hosted the Asian Games that year. That’s when the Egyptians really came into their own, with Ramy Ashour lifting the trophy in April and Amr Shabana following suit in October.
A moment which seemed rather innocuous at the time actually turned Ashour’s title clash against Australia’s David Palmer on its head. Having lost the first game, Ashour decided to change his racquet in the all-important second game. He struck the ball against the wall with his ‘newly acquired tool’ for a few minutes and that was all it took to break Palmer’s momentum; Ashour ran away with the match in four games, the final score reading 8-11, 11-9, 11-9, 11-6.
Shabana, who had been knocked out in the early rounds of the competition on that occasion, made sure that there were no slip-ups later that year. He beat Gregory Gaultier of France 11-4, 8-11, 11-6, 11-5 in the final. It was to be Shabana’s sole Qatar Classic title. Ashour, who has not competed in the tournament since 2011, has also not repeated the feat achieved by him 10 years ago.
“About seven or eight years ago I made my breakthrough in Qatar and we used to get paid in cash. So, I went straight down to the jeweller’s who sponsored the event and bought a brand new Omega watch.” – Nick Mathew, 2009 Qatar Classic Champion
One of the added attractions of the Qatar Classic this year was that the total prize money was increased to $165,000 from the earlier figure of $150,000.
In fact, a couple of years ago, 2009 champion Nick Matthew commented: “About seven or eight years ago I made my breakthrough in Qatar and we used to get paid in cash (US dollars). So, I went straight down to the jeweller’s who sponsored the event and bought a brand new Omega watch. I handed them all the cash that I had, which was probably about £3,000, and got quite a good deal as it was probably a £5,000 watch. Nowadays, it’s much more professional and it all gets paid into your bank account, which is probably a good thing as we were all lethal with cash in those days. It was in one pocket and out the other.”
As far as the fairer sex is concerned, there is no getting past Malaysia’s Nicol Ann David, arguably the greatest woman player of all time. She might be past her prime now, but was invincible more often than not during her hay days, and won the Qatar Classic five times (April 2007, October 2007, 08, 10, 11), which included three successive titles.
Australia’s Natalie Grinham was at the receiving end of David’s brilliance three times in a row, which incidentally included the first three tournament wins of the Malaysian on Qatari soil. David’s last title here came in 2011 when she beat Northern Ireland’s Madeline Perry in the final. There was a gap of three years before the women’s edition of the tournament took place again. Laura Massaro of England came up trumps on that occasion, beating Nour El Sherbini of Egypt 11-8, 12-14, 11-9, 8-11, 11-9 in a nail-biting finish. However, there has not been a ‘Qatar Classic’ involving women since 2015.
Qatar ExxonMobil Open
The year 1993 witnessed the inaugural edition of the tournament (the Qatar Total Open for women has been held every year since 2001). The likes of Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg and Goran Ivanisevic were the names that stood out in the draw on that occasion. The summit clash went right down to the wire, with Becker getting the better of giant-serving Croat Ivanisevic 7-6 (7-4), 4-6, 7-5.
The German had earlier beaten Edberg in the last-four stage of the competition; it was to be his only title win in Qatar. The Becker-Edberg rivalry reached dizzying heights during the three successive Wimbledon finals from 1988-90. The pair clashed twice in Doha, during the semi-finals in ’93 and in the first round in ’96, with Becker coming out on top on both occasions.
However, Edberg who featured regularly in the season opener had his moments as well, winning back-to-back titles in 1994 and ’95. ATP tournaments in Asia were a rare commodity during those times, and the willingness for players to travel to ‘non-western’ countries was not something that could be taken for granted. Citing “mysterious diseases”, Edberg had in fact refused to travel to India for Sweden’s Davis Cup tie against India in ’96. The fact that he competed year after year at the Qatar ExxonMobil Open does speak volumes for the event.
The tournament being organised in early January makes it a popular destination for players, not only in terms of the weather, but also because it’s treated as a prelude to the Australian Open, the first grand slam of the year. The tournament was made a part of the ATP World Tour 250 series event calendar in 2009. The legendary Roger Federer holds the record for winning the most number of titles (3) in Doha, while Britain’s Andy Murray holds the distinction for the maximum number of final appearances (2007, 2008, 2009, 2017), having triumphed on two of those occasions – ’08, ’09. Interestingly, Rafael Nadal, who was crowned champion in 2014, also has four doubles titles to his name.
“You can see that there is a history to this event, and the people who are running the tournament obviously share the passion and love for the sport.” – Novak Djokovic, 2017 ExxonMobil Open champion
Two-time defending champion Novak Djokovic is a staunch supporter of event and paid it the ultimate compliment last year when he said: “The conditions for the players in Doha are terrific. The tennis centre is phenomenal. You can see that there is a history to this event, and the people who are running the tournament obviously share the passion and love for the sport.”
And it’s not just the players who have taken a liking to the tournament. Tennis announcer Andy Taylor has been working at the Qatar ExxonMobil Open and Qatar Total Open since 2014. “One of the advantages of the tennis tournaments in Doha is that one can be much closer to the players and thereby the action, which is not possible in other places where gaining access to important areas might not be that easy,” he said earlier this year.
There have been enough testimonials and developments in the last 25 years to suggest that Qatar’s prized tennis event has been a tremendous advertisement not just for the game, but for the entire nation, which has been associated with this sport over three decades. And one thing’s for sure: the Qatar ExxonMobil Open is here to stay and will be around for a long, long time to come.
Commercial Bank Qatar Masters
Held at the Doha Golf Club since 1998, the Commercial Bank Qatar Masters has come a long way to become one of the most celebrated golf tournaments in the region. The event is part of the European tour and is organised every year towards the end of January. The names associated with it have become bigger and bigger over the years.
The winners list includes Adam Scott and Ernie Els, both ranked number one in the world at certain points of their careers, and Sergio Garcia, ranked as high as number two in the world in 2008. Wang Jeung-hun of South Korea won the tournament this year. Multiple winners include Scott, Paul Lawrie and Branden Grace, who have won the tournament twice each. However, in its 20-year history, no player has ever defended the title won by him the previous year.
As the years have progressed, players have developed a soft corner for the event. In fact, it has become a favourite of Thomas Bjørn (Denmark), winner here in 2011. “I remember the early editions of it. Obviously it was new and we didn’t know what to expect. Golf in the whole region was in its infancy,” says Bjørn.
“You come to Qatar now and it’s just an amazing development in such a short space of time. As a tournament, the weather’s so good, the facilities are nice, and everything here has just grown, grown and grown. This golf tournament now just sits so well with the golf players and this whole three-week ‘desert swing’ blends together so well.
Speaking at the 20th anniversary of the event, the Dane further said that there has been a great list of champions because this run of events attracts a lot of top-class players and they just want to get their season started. “Top players look towards the Masters and their preparation starts now. When you have a venue like this, it’s such a good asset for a tournament, because it’s such a good golf course. It asks a lot of questions and top players will always look at that. That’s why it sits well with top players, and has great champions.”
Bjørn also added that along with the other golfers, when he first came here, it could never be imagined that Qatar would be hosting the FIFA World Cup in the future.
“When we first came here, we thought it was so different, but you could see the attraction and the potential, and we’ve watched how Qatar has put itself on the world map. When they host events, they do it so well.
“It’s important for Qatar to keep producing these world-class events, putting themselves on the map and showing how well they do them, especially in the lead-up to the World Cup.”
Echoing Bjørn’s words, Lawrie, victorious here in ’99 and ’12, in fact went a step further in praising the course at the Doha Golf Club.”It is my favourite course. It is pretty much the same…some new tees are there. Overall, the place is nearly the same. The top hasn’t changed. Obviously over the years, it (the tournament) has grown.”
It would probably not be an exaggeration to say that the Commercial Bank Qatar Masters has come of age, and has, along with the tennis, squash and other sporting fixtures, played its part in making the country one of the top sporting destinations in the world. The World Cup can wait, at least for the time being.